“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl, The Minpins
In terms of escapism, Roald Dahl is unmatched. Over his writing career, he gave audiences many different options for a way out of the mundanity of modern living. Most famous for his children’s novels, and with his fantastical world’s brought to life by the magnificent subtlety of illustrator Quentin Blake, he established himself as one of the world’s best-beloved authors.
The magic of his literary world was that he often positioned the youthful positivity of children antithetically to the dastardly adults. This is something that both children and adults can relate to, owing to the fact that we all started our lives as children and that as adults, we often find ourselves yearning for the greener days of our lives given the constraints and pressures of adulthood.
Stemming from his childhood at the Repton boarding school, particularly from his clashes with the wicked local sweetshop lady and abuse from his teachers, these formative experiences informed this inherent opposition between children and their elders in his novels. Amanda Craig perfectly summed up the sentiment: “He was unequivocal that it is the good, young and kind who triumph over the old, greedy and the wicked.”
However, looking beyond this concept, there is also a juxtaposition intrinsic to Dahl’s works. Although they carry in them a warm, positive message, Dahl’s villains are often sinister characters, aptly depicted by Blake, who often meet a darkly comic and violent end. The Witches, George’s Marvellous Medicine and Matilda are the clearest examples of this.
In fact, his take on the ills of the world has resulted in a vast amount of discourse in itself, as there is a socially conscious element to a lot of his works, including Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World. Being half-Norweigian, Dahl also took a lot of inspiration from the country’s famous mythologies, which stemmed from the frightening tales he and his sisters would be told by their mother at bedtime. This is why, if you’ve noticed, his stories have an almost allegorical essence to them. Nothing short of remarkable, for works that were never too extensive.
Aside from his mainstay as a children’s author, Dahl was famously also a World War II fighter pilot in the R.A.F.. In the middle of the war, after being invalided from a plane crash, he was recruited into espionage and was somewhat of an “our man in Washington” sort. He rubbed shoulders with the highest echelons in American society for a time and worked in the British Embassy in Washington D.C.. In this era, he also worked alongside the mastermind of Britain’s premier spy, Ian Fleming.
Aside from this already colourful life, he also wrote adult fiction and screenplays. He penned the screenplay for the big-screen adaption of his old friend Ian Fleming’s 007 novel, You Only Live Twice and the iconic Dick Van Dyke flick, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Ever the prolific writer, with a brain teeming with ideas, he was also the man behind the cult anthology tv show, Tales of the Unexpected.
An inspiration to many, his works continue to inspire people across all creative realms. Truly unique, his larger than life spirit lives on through his words. Somewhat of a modern successor to Lewis Carroll, many of our favourite 21st-century creatives would not exist without his influence.
This got us thinking, what are the five best film adaptations of his works? There have been many, so join us as we strip it down to five. Disclaimer: This is just our opinion, and we’re excluding the likes of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1984 classic What Have I Done to Deserve This? as it was only partially based on his work. Furthermore, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory are also omitted as Dahl wrote the screenplay’s himself.
The five best Roald Dahl films:
Fantastic Mr. Fox – 2009
2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is a brilliant film regardless of it being a Dahl work, and the fact that it is, only makes it better. A stop-motion take by Wes Anderson and co-written by Noah Baumbach, it has an all-star cast boasting George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray. It even features a cameo from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker.
A subtle take on the original, it does a great job of bringing Dahl’s original into the modern world and succeeds in augmenting the narrative. Citing Dahl as one of his heroes, it is safe to say that without his magical world, Anderson’s own peculiar on-screen realms would not exist.
James and the Giant Peach – 1996
This 1996 fantasy was directed by stop-motion pioneer Henry Selick, the mastermind behind the stop-motion in classics such as 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and 2009’s Coraline. Produced by Nightmare director and Dahl fan, Tim Burton, the film is a clinical riff on the original.
Boasting a cast of greats such as Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon, the film straddles the animated and live-action to perfection. A humourous and at points dark redux, who can forget the villainous mechanical shark or the deathly presence of the Rhino?
The Witches – 1991
Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation is a wickedly dark take. Helmed by the iconic Jim Henson Productions, it carries off the shadowy elements of Dahl tale perfectly, owing to Henson’s own penchant for all things foreboding. Well received across the board upon release, it has since developed a devoted cult following.
Featuring supporting roles from Swedish icon Mai Zetterling and Rowan Atkinson, apart from the children turning into mice, and the iconic scene where the Witches reveal their ghastly true selves, Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch is unforgettable throughout. One would even wager it is one of her best-ever roles. Furthermore, whoever settled on the filming location of Newquay’s historic Headland Hotel is a genius. Its mysterious atmosphere perfectly captures the one in Dahl’s 1983 original.
Matilda – 1996
1996’s fantasy-comedy adaptation of the book is nothing short of a classic. Co-produced and directed by the legendary Danny DeVito, the colourful cast also features child star of the day Mara Wilson, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz and Pam Ferris. Through the scope of DeVito’s madcap genius, the film is an oddly charming take.
There’s the gut-wrenching Bruce Bogtrotter chocolate cake scene, the hilarious scene where Miss Trunchbull throws Amanda Thripp like a hammer via her pigtails into the ether, and of course, the iconic Rusted Root song ‘Send Me on My Way’. What’s not to love?
Danny, the Champion of the World – 1989
This 1989 adaptation is seriously overlooked. Featuring Jeremy Irons as Danny’s father and Samuel Irons as the titular child hero, this pheasant poaching adventure succeeds in conveying Dahl’s socially conscious themes.
Featuring Robbie Coltrane’s marvellous depiction of the vile businessman Victor Hazell and supporting roles from icons such as Lionel Jeffries and Michael Hordern, this riff on the original does well to convey the year it was set, 1955, by featuring some of its most prominent actors and fitting set designs.